Prakriti or cosmic matter is made up of five great elements, each with its own life, form and location, but inter-dependent and connected. The five great elements are (according to their decreasing subtlety) space or aakasha; air or vayu; fire or agni; water or aapa; and earth or prithvi, according to several Upanishads.

In the South of India, there are five great temples of Shiva associated with the five elements or panchabhuta. They are Chidambaram which houses the invisible Aakasha Linga; Sri Kalahasti which is the home of the Vayu Linga; Tiruvannamalai, the sacred hill of Arunachaleshwara where the Agni Linga is situated; Tiruvaanaikkaval where the Aapa lingam of Jambukeshwara may be seen and finally Kanchipuram where the temple of Ekamreshwara also houses the Prithvi Linga.

In the following few weeks, we will be visiting each linga and its environment, which makes them so sacred.

We start with Tiruvannamalai, the sacred mountain of Shiva which is also the situation of the Agni Linga. Shiva is identified with agni or fire even in the Rig Veda. He is a column of fire whose source is unknown. Saivite saints describe the hill as adi-mudi or high and low, referring to the efforts of Brahma and Vishnu to reach the crown and the feet of Shiva respectively.


This site is mentioned as early as the 7th century CE in the songs of the Naayanmaars or Saivite saints, and the temple was developed over the years up to Vijayanagara period. In the 18th century, the temple occupied 1/5th of the town area. The hill of Tiruvannamalai is about 800 metres high and visible upto a diameter of 20 kilometres. The hill is symbolic of the lingam itself. Here Shiva is known as Arunachaleshwara and the most important festival is that of Kaartikai Deepam when thousands of lamps are lit and can be seen miles in and around Tiruvannamalai. This year, it falls on November 25th.


The temple is a sprawling complex spread over 25 acres consisting of 11 gopurams, 7 mandapams, 2 tanks and 5 prakarams. The entire complex is enclosed by a massive wall of stone and bricks. The main entrance to the complex is through the eastern gopuram, a gigantic 11-storeyed structure rising to a height of 67 meters and width of 42 meters.


Apart from the main shrine of the Jyotirlingam, there are other shrines for Murugan; Ganesha; Vidyadeshwara Lingam; Brahma Lingam (also known as Panchamukha Lingam with four faces representing water, fire, air and earth, while the cervical top represents ether). Lord Shivas consort is Unnamalai Amman who is situated in the third prakara. The fourth prakara is the garbagriha of Lord Annamalai, first built by Aditya Chola.


Tiruvannamalai is also famous as a home of Ramana Maharishi, the great saint of the early 20th century, whose ashram is a major attraction in this town.

Why was fire so sacred?

“Fire is considered divine. Sun, lightning, and fire are forms of this element. The lustrous dawn (Usas) and the glorious orb of the sun (Surya) are its expressions. Sunlight is life giving and life supporting under certain conditions. For example, if the temperature is too high or too low, life cannot be sustained. The friendly aspect of the sun is personified as Mitra. He is the stimulator of life (Pusan). He shines in every direction (Vivasvat). Fire is a messenger to the gods. No impure thing should be thrown in the fire. Sacrificial smoke purifies sky (space) and air. The seer prays in the Rig Veda (1.1): Oh, Agni, like a father to his son, he thou easy of access to us: be with us for our welfare. (Hinduism and Ecology, Ed. Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Oxford University Press, p.31).

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